Preaching to mixed congregations

What do the Scriptures say? Is it appropriate for a woman to preach to a mixed congregation? In answering these questions, the long debate over woman’s ordination has not helped.

One of the encouraging signs of life in evangelicalism is a demonstrable concern to develop the ministry of women in our churches. In many places women make up more than half the local congregation. They are people with genuine needs, sometimes very particular needs, and they are also gifted members of the body of Christ. We all need to face the uncomfortable fact that our cultural foolishness has prevented many of us from taking seriously the possibilities of ministry by women and the need to minister to women.

I want to encourage us to continue to proactive in the development of women’s ministry. If we take seriously the Bible’s teaching that God has gifted each of us, and that we all have priestly access to God in Christ, then we cannot afford to ignore the contribution of women to the advance of God’s gospel. For the truth is that many woman have long been involved in ministry. Institutional recognition (or lack of it) has never prevented God’s people (women and men) from getting involved in God’s mission to bring all things under the feet of Christ.

For those who are committed to the Scriptures as the Word of our sovereign and loving God, men and women alike, the issue has been how to develop this ministry in a way that is consistent with the teaching of Scripture. No-one needs to be told that countless litres of ink and reams of paper has been dedicated to the task of exploring just this question. Often, however, the discussion has focused on the practice of ordination.

The distraction of the ordination debate

I consider the ordination debate to be a major distraction from a carefully considered encouragement of women’s ministry for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Bible knows little of ordination as it is often practiced. There is a long period of development between the appointment of deacons and presbyters in the New Testament and contemporary conventions of church eldership. The names might be the same, but there are many major differences in responsibilities and method of appointment.

Secondly, this modern debate has focused on all the wrong questions. In some dioceses the ordination question has not been connected with the exercise of pastoral care and the teaching of a congregation, but rather with permission to perform more ceremonial functions (taking a communion service, or giving the absolution, or pronouncing a blessing). In this way the ordination debate can occupy us with questions the Bible does not address, and distract us from the more important questions it does address (the exercise of authority and the function of teaching).

The strong emotions that are aroused when denominational recognition is denied to women’s ministry have also distracted us. We must face the fact that there are women who have been hurt by attitudes that have little to do with what the Bible says and a lot more to do with our culture and our own sinfulness. Those attitudes need to be challenged by the clear teaching of the Word of God. Recognition of Christ’s lordship includes a preparedness to expose even our most cherished prejudices and presuppositions to the transforming impact of the gospel.

The danger of the ordination debate

The debate about women’s ordination over the last three decades has not only distracted us from the more important questions of women’s ministry. It has erected significant obstacles in the path of a clear and constructive discussion of those more important questions. For one, as the debate has ground on, fewer people are distinguishing between the structures of our denominations and those which are emerging in the New Testament. Related to this is the lack of a distinction between ordination and ministry, which has led some to act as if only the ordained really exercise ministry (in contrast with Paul in Ephesians). This institutionally-bound perspective on the issue has led to confusion, even amongst biblically-minded evangelicals.

As a result of the ordination debate, some are suggesting that all the issues related to women’s ministry have been heard and that any further discussion is superfluous. Others have simply grown weary of the argument. In much of the Christian world there is a strong pressure to silence on those who remain unconvinced, rather sadly tied to a demonstrable concern for ‘political correctness’. Often the motives of those concerned are laudable, to minimize the emotional damage to women and the public relations disaster that this issue has become, but we are bound to ask whether the solution adequately deals with these concerns.

The importance of discussion about sexuality and ministry

However, in the face of the distraction and danger of the ordination debate, I am convinced that the issues of sexuality and ministry are vitally important and need careful attention. These issues strike at the heart of what it means to be a human being in the presence of God. We cannot divorce our humanity from our sexuality: the human race is not androgynous. Nor can we divorce our response to God and our exercise of Christian ministry from our sexuality without obscuring our humanity.

Christians are convinced of God’s goodness towards us, both in creation and in redemption. Part of this goodness is the sexual polarity of the human race. God created us ‘male and female’ (Gen 1:27). The narrative of Genesis 2 makes abundantly clear that this sexual polarity is part of what we might call the complementarity of the human race. God did not simply duplicate Adam when he declared that it was not good for man to be alone. He creates one who, almost paradoxically combines sameness and difference. Adam is able to describe Eve as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23) and yet clearly she is distinct, and indeed different, from him.

The New Testament affirms this equality between men and women while at the same time not dissolving the distinction. Whether in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4, or Paul’s description of the relation of husband and wife in terms of Christ and the church in Ephesians 5, or Paul’s instructions for life in the Christian gathering in 1 Timothy 2, these two perspectives on the relation between the sexes remain intact: men and woman are equal but different.

This leads us to conclude that the modern attempts of our culture to camouflage the distinction between the sexes, and to move as close as possible to androgyny, are not only harmful to both men and women, but also a denial of God’s goodness to us. (It is not often recognized that the teaching of the Bible on the importance of gender and sexuality stands in stark contrast to the androgynous nature of ancient Gnosticism.) We must be careful not to mirror unwittingly this rebellion in our churches. A much more faithful response is to affirm and enjoy this God-given distinction, looking to reflect it in positive ways when we gather as Christians.

The critical issues: authority and teaching

In the midst of our concern to affirm women’s ministry, we urgently need a careful re-examination of the critical issues as far as Holy Scripture is concerned. In 1 Timothy 2 and 2 Corinthians 14 in particular, those issues seem to be the exercise of authority and the function of teaching. It is at these two points that a clear distinction is made between that ministry which is appropriately exercised by women and that which is more appropriately exercised by men in a mixed congregation. And yet the same Paul who wrote these instructions under the inspiration of God speaks elsewhere of us all being “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). He sees no contradiction between equality and unity on the one hand, and a differentiation which is appropriately expressed in the respective ministries of men and women on the other. Careful examination of these passages in their context is essential.

It is particularly at the point of teaching mixed congregations that our attention is most required. Although such teaching may take a variety of forms, its most common and regular expression is as preaching in the weekly mixed congregational gathering. In light of the teaching of Scriptures, is it appropriate for a woman to preach to a mixed congregation? Would this violate the apostolic concern to affirm the goodness of God’s creation (including our sexuality) and the variety-within-unity that characterizes the Christian gathering?

Unconvincing arguments about preaching to mixed congregations

A number of arguments have been put forward in support of women preaching to mixed congregations. They have been doing the rounds of church and theological circles for some time now. The more I have thought about them, the less convinced I have become. This, I believe, is a testimony to the continuing need for a frank and open discussion where each participant can be brought back continually to the only final authority, the revelation of God in Holy Scripture. I wish now to look at these arguments in turn, and to do so by focusing on the Scriptures at points where they are relevant. Through this exercise, the shortcomings of each approach are illuminated by the Word of God.

1. Equality requires uniform ministry (Gal 3:28)

This argument for allowing women to preach to mixed congregations is dubious at a number of levels. In the first instance, it flies in the face of Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12-14, where variety within the unity of the body is affirmed. There are a variety of ministries for us to exercise, even though our ultimate objective is the same: that the congregation might grow to the fullness of the stature of Christ. Uniformity does not appear to be a biblical principle.

On another level, the suggestion that genuine equality entails a freedom to do all that the other is permitted to do compromises our understanding of the Trinity. There is no suggestion anywhere in Scripture that the unity or equality of the persons within the Trinity is dependent upon each doing everything the others do. The Trinity provides the fullest expression of differentiated unity: the Son is born of the Father; the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.

Those who espouse this argument often present Galatians 3:28 as the fundamental text for the relation of the sexes in the New Testament. Here Paul reminds his readers that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Some take this verse and make it a kind of ‘control’ for the rest of the New Testament. This is the window through which every other text must be seen. In addition to the fact that the creation of such a window is a dangerous practice in itself, this suggestion fails to deal adequately with the context of Galatians 2:38. In Galatians 3, Paul affirms an equality of access to the blessings of the promise first given to Abraham. He is not speaking about function but about status, and under divine inspiration he is able to distinguish the two, unlike some modern writers.

2. Ministry is a matter of godliness and giftedness, not gender

This argument has a great emotional attraction, for to argue against it is to risk being accused of denying the necessity of godliness and giftedness, or at best subordinating them to the question of gender. However, this need not be the case. Certainly the apostle Paul does not minimize considerations of godliness or giftedness (even in 1 Timothy). Yet clearly he is concerned to differentiate the ministries of men and women in a mixed congregational setting. This particular argument is usually advanced in connection with one of the others, precisely because all recognize that in and of itself it is inadequate, failing to explain Paul’s concerns in passages such as 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14.

At this point it is worth emphasizing that there are any number of ‘teaching opportunities’ that fall outside of this Pauline prohibition. The mixed congregational setting is an important arena for ministry, but certainly not the only one envisaged in the New Testament (nor is ministry in that setting confined to what goes on in the pulpit!). In Titus 2, Paul actually encourages older women to teach younger women. In contrast to the way this opportunity is portrayed by many (women as well as men), Paul does not treat it as the ‘ministry consolation prize’. Here is a vital ministry, one which involved the teaching of the Word of God and which is appropriately, perhaps most appropriately, exercised by women. The Christian growth of a large number of people within our churches depends to no small extent on the faithful exercise of this ministry. Evangelical churches have been as slow as anyone else in recognizing that we need to recruit more women into ministry, training and equipping them to evangelize and teach other women and to make the most of this crucial opportunity. There is absolutely no need to suggest that the Pauline prohibition in 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 frustrates the exercise of spiritual gifts that God has given.

3. The New Testament writings that do not permit women to teach men simply reflect the patriarchal worldview of the first century

There are three reasons why this argument is unconvincing. The first is that it reveals a rather simplistic appraisal of the first century Hellenistic world. After all, the New Testament itself presents in a positive light a number of women in positions of influence. Dorcas, Priscilla and Lydia are amongst the most prominent examples in the Book of Acts.

The second reason for rejecting the argument is that the very texts which hare supposed to be reflecting this cultural perspective appear to be decidedly counter-cultural at other points. The most obvious example is the rather novel suggestion that women should “learn” in 1 Timothy 2:11. Against the views of some of the Greek philosophers, this was almost revolutionary.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is a critical theological objection to this argument. Precisely what are we dealing wit when we come to the Holy Scripture? Is this simply a reflection of fallible contemporary culture, or is it the Word of God to us? Is God involved in the production of this material accurately to reveal his mind to us, without in any way bypassing the humanity of the secondary authors like Paul? These questions reveal that our view of Scripture is intimately connected to this discussion.

4. These texts simply address a particular problem in the churches of Ephesus and Corinth which circumscribes their application

This argument seeks to reconstruct the historical setting of the letters in question. From hints in the letter itself and evidence in the other New Testament documents and beyond, it is suggested that a particular problem in Ephesus required the prohibition of which Paul speaks in 1 Timothy. A similar explanation is given for Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 14.

There are a number of problems with this approach. First of all, these letters do not come to us simply as ad hoc documents addressed to, and only to, a particular group of Christians. It is clear that Paul expected others apart from the original addressees to read his letters, and he even encourages the practice (Col 4:16). Again, our doctrine of Scripture is involved here. Is this really God’s Word to us?

A second problem arises in the context of 1 Timothy 2 itself. The critical verses which include the prohibition against women teaching to mixed congregations occur within a context which patently presents principles of widespread application. In verse 8, Paul begins with an instruction to “men in every place” and when he directs his attention to women his instructions are joined to the previous ones by the word “similarly”. In the 1 Corinthians 14 passage, Paul’s intention is even clearer: he says the prohibition is in line with the practice of “all the congregations of the saints” (v. 33b).

The third problem with this argument is that in 1 Timothy 2 in particular, Paul appeals to trans-cultural biblical principles as the basis for these instructions. Paul speaks of God’s intention for men and women as seen in Genesis 1-3, an intention that is established at creation (“Adam was formed first, then Eve”), compromised by the Fall (“it was the woman who was deceived”), yet reaffirmed in the redemptive promise (“she will be saved through the childbirth”).

5. The permission to prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11 must modify the prohibition concerning teaching in 1 Timothy 2

The suggestion that the permission for women to prophesy in 1 Corinthians 11 must nuance the prohibition on women on teaching in 1 Timothy, allowing at least occasional preaching to a mixed congregation by a woman, fails, it seems to me, to recognize two things. First, there is no consensus on precisely what New Testament prophecy is. Despite the best efforts of some scholars, there is no indisputable connection between prophecy then and preaching now. The appeal to prophecy by women as a precedent for preaching by women often assumes that we know more than we do. Second, the same kind of prohibition which is found in 1 Timothy with regard to teaching and authority, is found in 1 Corinthians 14 with regard to the evaluation of prophecy. This suggests a close link between teaching and the evaluation of prophecy, a link which makes perfect sense once we see that it is Holy Scripture which provides both the means of the evaluation and the source of the teaching.

6. Teaching ‘under the authority’ of another falls outside the parameters of Paul’s prohibition

In some places, this is the most popular argument for women preaching to mixed congregations, and yet I find it no more convincing than the others. The heart of the argument is that Paul’s problem really only arises when teaching and authority come together (for instance when a woman assumes the role of the senior teacher in a congregation) and can be avoided by the woman teaching ‘under the authority’ of another. As long as it is clearly seen that this woman’s teaching is endorsed by the authoritative teacher in the congregation, Paul’s prohibition is not violated.

There are two main problems here. The first has to do with the nature of teaching in the New Testament. Teaching typically involves the authoritative Word of God. How is it possible to present that authoritative Word without, by this very act, exercising authority? It is true that we must repeatedly affirm the fact that divine authority lies in the Word and not the messenger; nevertheless, when the Word is being truthfully explained, it is often hard to separate the two in practice. In addition, teaching is a personal activity which generates a teacher-disciple relationship. In the context of both 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, it is clear that it is precisely this relationship which makes the teaching of men by women inappropriate. Can we really say that this relationship is any more or less real when the activity which gives rise to it occurs with the permission of another?

The second problem has to do with the nature of authority presupposed by this argument. Authority here is viewed almost in institutional terms, vested in a person rather than in the Word of God, and exercised by power of office rather than in the very act of faithfully expounding the Word. Galatians 2, in which Paul challenges Peter on the basis of the word of the gospel, calls into question this understanding of authority.

Where to from here?

There is clearly a great need for further exploration of these issues. Those with different points of view need to continue the dialogue, with humility and yet bold confidence in God’s goodness towards us. We must not lose our determination to understand the Scriptures aright, for they are the accurate revelation of the mind of our sovereign God. This article is a plea to return and examine them again.

There is a new kind of legalism abroad that wants to nail down every possibility and legislate in advance, even for emergency situations. The freedom that is ours in Christ makes it important to resist this urge if it comes upon us. And yet we must recognize an enormous cultural momentum which comes from the opposite direction, making it increasingly difficult for us to take any kind of stand on these issues. It is not ‘balance’ that we need, marking our place somewhere in the middle between outright prohibition and ‘anything goes’. Rather, we need to live in the light of our confidence in God our Father.

God has made us, men and women, equal and yet different, the same in essence and yet complementary in function. A recognition of this complementarity will actually reinforce our unity and equality rather than undermine it. We harm ourselves and dishonour our god when we attempt to ignore what he has given us as men and women. That is why I am convinced we need to think again about women teaching mixed congregations, while remaining committed to developing the ministry of women throughout our churches.